Jonnie and Mark Houston are 35-year-old fraternal twins who own seven Hollywood bars, each of which feels like a fantastical theme park. The spots are known for their old-timey entertainment - burlesque dancers, tightrope walkers, fire eaters - and craft cocktails. One, Harvard & Stone, features live music and incorporates a "research and development" bar, where guest mixologists from around the world concoct original drink menus every night.
Since the late aughts, the Houston brothers have been redefining L.A. nightlife. Their Houston Hospitality brand now is a mini-empire of concept-driven speakeasies, many of which incorporate secret entrances.
You wouldn't know from his leather biker jacket, but Jonnie is the more conservative of the two. Mark, who today wears a blazer and pastel print button-down, says his brother initially was skeptical about the tightrope walkers and fire eaters. Warm and funny, the twins can make you feel as if you're the life of the party, even though they're the ones throwing it.
Their latest bar is called Good Times at Davey Wayne's, a 1970s-themed tribute to their father, David Wayne Houston, a Montana-born Caucasian banker, from whom they acquired their love of classic cars. But their childhood was far from idyllic. The twins' mother, Pola Houston, a Thai immigrant, owns the hole-in-the-wall-bar Monte Carlo in Koreatown, where the boys basically grew up. They were 6 when alcohol destroyed their parents' marriage. By the time they were old enough to legally drink, Jonnie and Mark were sick of the L.A. nightlife scene.
"We hit a point where going out wasn't that fun to us because it was all crap," says Jonnie, referring to tacky nightclubs with bottle service and overplayed pop music.
So they ventured into the business world, dropping out of Santa Monica College at 19 to launch a successful cellphone and pager company, which expanded into four retail stores.
Along the way they made enough money to open a drinkery called simply the Bar, a narrow, no-frills lounge on Sunset Boulevard. Their empire has since expanded to include, besides Harvard & Stone, No Vacancy, Dirty Laundry, La Descarga, Piano Bar and Pour Vous. This month will see the debut of their first restaurant: Butchers & Barbers, featuring chef Chris Oh, who opened Korean eatery Seoul Sausage after winning season three of Food Network's Food Truck Race.
There has been controversy along the way for the Houston brothers. Their establishments have strict dress codes, which forbid T-shirts, hoodies, flip-flops and baseball caps; at Harvard & Stone, only "analog rock & roll, rhythm and blues - based" musical acts are permitted. For this reason, last May they canceled a hip-hop show featuring rapper Open Mike Eagle, who called the venue "racist against rap music." Responds Mark Houston: The dress code and entertainment policies aren't intended to be exclusionary but to "curate a specific vibe" to complement each bar's concept.
The brothers also are designing several suites inside Koreatown's new Line hotel, a collaboration with the folks who oversaw the design of New York's and Palm Springs' ultra-modern Ace Hotels and celebrity chef Roy Choi.
One suspects the Houston brothers will succeed in this venture, if only because, well, they always seem to succeed. Just look at how they transformed a downtrodden East Hollywood dive into La Descarga, the Cuban-inspired rum and cigar bar. Now the exclusive club requires a reservation - and, yes, you will be turned away if you show up in flip-flops.
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Correction: The earlier version of this story called the brothers identical twins, when in fact they are fraternal.